rightA Great Famine occurred in 1959 and 1961. For two decades the Chinese government maintained that between 10 and 20 million died as a result of drought and bad weather during that time. Now it believed that between 30 and 45 million may have died, making it world's greatest disaster since the Great Plague of the Middle Ages. What is even worse is that catastrophe now seems to have been a direct result of — or at least exacerbated by — Mao's inept attempts at industrialization during the Great Leap Forward. The Great Famine is called “The Three Years of Natural Disasters” in Chinese official discourse.The 30 million figure comes from the U.S. Census Bureau, which used a complicated model based on statistics from by China' State Statistical Bureau. Researchers at Princeton University, using a different model and a different set of statistics, came up with 45 million — about one out of every 20 people in China at that time. Most scholars believe the true figure is somewhere between 23 and 30 million, with numbers ranging from 15 million to as many as 55 million — making it one of the deadliest famines in human history.

The Great Leap Forward aimed at make China a major industrial power overnight rapidly raising industrial and agricultural production. Deviating from the Soviet model, giant cooperatives (communes) and “backyard factories” were created. One of the goals was the maximum use of the labor force by dramatically altering family life. In the end industrialization was pushed too fast, resulting in the overproduction of inferior goods and the deterioration of the industrial sector as a whole. Normal market mechanisms broke down and the goods that were produced were unusuable. Agriculture was neglected and the Chinese people were exhausted. These factors combined and bad weather caused the three successive crop failures in 1959, 1960 and 1961. The widespread famine and appeared even in fertile agricultural areas. [Source: Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed., Columbia University Press; “Countries of the World and Their Leaders” Yearbook 2009, Gale]

“When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death,” Mao observed at the time. “It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” "The first to die," wrote Daniel Southerland in the Washington Post, "were children and the aged...Under the commune system, the peasants were required to eat in communal mess halls where food was provided free. But the mess halls ran out of grain. Soon 'everything was in disorder' in the mess halls, according to one study. The young and the strong hastily consumed the most food while the old and weak could eat only the worst food, and ate less...The country's party leader, Zhao Yushu, prohibited people from rescuing children found abandoned along roads and in fields because saving them would lead more people to desert their children." [Source: Daniel Southerland, Washington Post, July 17, 1994]

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backyard furnaces
"By December 1958," Mao's doctor wrote, "the food shortages had penetrated the vermilion walls of Zhongnanhai. That winter a nationwide famine set in. A large portion of the harvest lay uncollected in the fields because so many men had been transferred to working in the backyard steel furnaces.” The scale of the suffering only became fully understood in the 1990s. Chris Buckley wrote in the New York Times, “Beginning in the early 1980s, restrictions on studying the famine began to ease. Historians gained limited access to archives, and sets of census and other population data gradually became available, allowing researchers to build a more detailed, albeit still incomplete, understanding of what Happened. Some scholars have concluded that about 17 million people died, while other counts go as high as 45 million, reflecting varied assumptions about the death rate in normal times as well as other uncertainties, including how much official statistics undercounted deaths during the famine years. [Source: Chris Buckley, New York Times, October 16, 2013]

RECOMMENDED BOOKS: "Tombstone" by Yang Jisheng, the first proper history of the Great Leap Forward and the famine of 1959 and 1961;
"Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62" by Frank Dikotter (Walker & Co, 2010);
"Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out" by Mo Yan (Arcade,2008), s narrated by a series of animals that witnessed the Land Reform Movement and Great Leap Forward;
"The Tragedy of Liberation: A History of the Chinese Revolution, 1945-1957" by Frank Dikotter, describes the Anti-Rightist period.; "China Witness, Voices from a Silent Generation" by Xinran (Pantheon Books, 2009) is collection of oral histories from Chinese who survived the Mao period . "Fanshen" by William Hinton is the classic account of rural revolution during the communist-led civil war in the late 1940s; "Mao; the Untold Story" by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday (Knopf. 2005); “Mao Zedong” by Jonathan Spence, Alexander Adams, et al.; "The Private Life of Chairman Mao" by Dr. Li Zhisui (1994); “Mao Zedong: A Political and Intellectual Portrait” by Maurice Meisner; "Mao's New World: Political Culture in the Early People's Republic" by Chang-tai Hung (Cornell University Press, 2011); “The Cambridge History of China, Vol. 14: The People's Republic, Part 1: The Emergence of Revolutionary China, 1949-1965" by Roderick MacFarquhar and John K. Fairbank

Great Famine on the Scale of the Holocaust and Stalin’s Gulags?

rare photo of people eating leaves in China during the Great Leap Forward

In his book "Mao’s Great Famine" Frank Dikötter, a professor of modern Chinese history at the University of Hong Kong, said he hopes to make the Great Famine “as well known as the two other man-made catastrophes of the twentieth century, the Holocaust and the Gulag.” Drawing on new data and research released around the time of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing he estimated that out of a total population of six hundred and fifty million, “at least 45 million people died unnecessarily between 1958 and 1962" and then said this was a conservative estimate, speculating the true number could be as high as sixty million.

Not only that Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker: Dikötter says “Mao also precipitated the biggest demolition of real estate, the most extensive destruction of the environment, and the biggest waste of manpower in history.” In the book Dikötter’s “takes its reader through a brisk tour of the follies, inefficiencies, and deceptions of Mao’s commandeered economy: impossible targets, exaggerated claims, maladroit innovation, lack of incentive, corruption, and waste. Ordered to go forth and make steel, Chinese flung anything they could find — pots, pans, cutlery, doorknobs, floorboards, and even farming tools — into primitive furnaces. Meanwhile, fields were abandoned as farmers fed furnaces in giant coöperatives, worked in similarly wasteful irrigation schemes, or migrated to urban factories in their millions. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010 +++]

Not all Chinese died of starvation or of the diseases that accompany malnutrition. “Coercion, terror, and systematic violence were the foundation of the Great Leap Forward,” Dikötter wrote. He estimated that at least two and a half million were worked, tortured, or beaten to death or simply executed by Party officials, and between one and three million people committed suicide. Some of those who survived did so by selling or abandoning their children or by digging up and devouring the dead. +++

Indian writer Amartya Sen has argued that as a bad as things were in China during the Great Famine period they have been worse in India over the long run. He said “despite the gigantic size of excess mortality in the Chinese famine, the extra mortality in India from regular deprivation in normal times vastly overshadows the former.” Describing China’s early lead over India in health care, literacy, and life expectancy, Sen wrote that “India seems to manage to fill its cupboard with more skeletons every eight years than China put there in its years of shame.” +++

Great Famine refugee in Hong Kong

Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “Between 1876 and 1879, in North China, as many as thirteen million people died in what came to be called the Incredible Famine. It was one of many calamities around the world during that decade which were caused by extreme weather. However, according to the British-owned North China Herald, an influential mouthpiece of the Western business communities clustered in Shanghai, the famine was proof of the folly of big government — the Qing imperial administration, in this instance. A fatal Chinese indifference to science, to railroads, and, most important, to laissez-faire economics was to blame. The famine and the many deaths in China would not have occurred "in vain," the Herald editorialized, if they could persuade the Chinese government to cease its paternalistic interfering in the laws of "private enterprise." [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012]

Never mind that more than twelve million people had died during the Madras Famine of 1877, even though India had been equipped by its British rulers with railroads and a free market in grains, or that Ireland, during the Great Potato Famine, thirty years earlier, had suffered from Britain's heartlessly enforced ideology of laissez-faire. The Herald deplored the "antiquated learning" of the Chinese, and described the heroic figure who could rescue China from misery: "The man wanted in China now, as in its early days, is a patriotic engineer," someone "single-minded and energetic" and possessing "commanding energy and resolution."

“In due course, China got just such a big-thinking, single-minded "patriotic engineer." His name was Mao Zedong, and his uneducated infatuation with the signs and symbols of modern progress — gigantic projects and economic statistics — caused a famine that dwarfed even the Incredible Famine. The Great Famine of 1958-62 is thought to have taken more than thirty million lives, and perhaps as many as forty-five million. The subject of the famine remains taboo in China; the official, absurdly generous, verdict on Mao's record is that he was "70 percent correct, and 30 percent wrong."

Background for the Great Famine

Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books: The famine grew out of Mao’s desire to speed up China’s development and force it into a utopian Communist vision that few in the Communist Party’s leadership had thought possible or desirable. When the Communists took power they had forced through a brutal land reform that killed millions of landlords and imagined enemies, but they had also redistributed property to peasants — an immensely popular measure that won Mao goodwill among many people. Then, however, Mao began to press for speedier development known as “rash advance.” Yang shows how the two other most influential leaders in the Party, Vice Chairman Liu Shaoqi and Premier Zhou Enlai, opposed “rash advance.” As early as 1951 Liu opposed collectivized agriculture as “erroneous, dangerous, fantastical.”[Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, November 22, 2012]

In 1957, however, Mao launched the Anti-Rightist Campaign, a wave of terror that wiped out or cowed much of the intelligentsia, terrifying even members of his inner circle. That allowed him to pursue collectivization, which reversed land reform by taking land from the peasants. Instead of peasants owning the land, the state did, giving it complete control over agricultural production. Enthusiasm fell, and with it production.

The problem took a deadly turn when Mao began to endorse opportunistic officials who boasted that the communes had created ‘sputnik harvests.” Henan, where the first communes had been formed in 1958, later that year began claiming wildly exaggerated yields of 1,000 kilograms of wheat per mu of land (a mu is one sixth of an acre) — fanciful numbers that defied common sense and science. Local governments began to outdo one another trying to offer the biggest harvests, which they had to deliver to state granaries. Often, these were nothing more than mounds of husks covered with a thin layer of grain, but once-skeptical officials like Zhou and Liu endorsed these magical results during public inspection tours. Local officials began sending all their village’s harvests to granaries to meet these impossible targets, leaving villagers with nothing to eat.

Great Leap Forward Devolution Into the Great Famine

Yang Jisheng, the author of "Tombstone", wrote in the New York Times, “The Great Leap Forward that Mao began in 1958 set ambitious goals without the means to meet them. A vicious cycle ensued; exaggerated production reports from below emboldened the higher-ups to set even loftier targets. Newspaper headlines boasted of rice farms yielding 800,000 pounds per acre. When the reported abundance could not actually be delivered, the government accused peasants of hoarding grain. House-to-house searches followed, and any resistance was put down with violence. [Source: Yang Jisheng, New York Times, November 13, 2012]

Meanwhile, since the Great Leap Forward mandated rapid industrialization, even peasants’ cooking implements were melted down in the hope of making steel in backyard furnaces, and families were forced into large communal kitchens. They were told that they could eat their fill. But when food ran short, no aid came from the state. Local party cadres held the rice ladles, a power they often abused, saving themselves and their families at the expense of others. Famished peasants had nowhere to turn.

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Great Leap Forward poster
As farmers abandoned the land, their commune leaders reported hugely exaggerated grain output to show their ideological fervour. The state took its share on the basis of these inflated figures and villagers were left with little or nothing to eat. When they complained, they were labelled counter-revolutionary and punished severely.

In the first half of 1959, the suffering was so great that the central government permitted remedial measures, like allowing peasant families to till small private plots of land for themselves part time. Had these accommodations persisted, they might have lessened the famine’s impact. But when Peng Dehuai, then China’s defense minister, wrote Mao a candid letter to say that things weren’t working, Mao felt that both his ideological stance and his personal power were being challenged. He purged Peng and started a campaign to root out “rightist deviation.” Remedial measures like the private plots were rolled back, and millions of officials were disciplined for failing to toe the radical line.

Yang shows how hastily conceived dams and canals contributed to the famine. In some areas, peasants weren’t allowed to plant crops; instead, they were ordered to dig ditches and haul dirt. That resulted in starvation and useless projects, most of which collapsed or washed away. In one telling example, peasants were told they couldn’t use shoulder poles to carry dirt because this method looked backward. Instead, they were ordered to build carts. For that they needed ball bearings, which they were told to make at home. Naturally, none of the primitive bearings worked.

The result was starvation on an epic scale. By the end of 1960, China’s total population was 10 million less than in the previous year. Astonishingly, many state granaries held ample grain that was mostly reserved for hard currency-earning exports or donated as foreign aid; these granaries remained locked to the hungry peasants. “Our masses are so good,” one party official said at the time. “They would rather die by the roadside than break into the granary.”

Agriculture and Grain Exports During the Great Famine

During the Great Leap Forward rural traditions were ignored. Farmers were prohibited from planting and fishing on their own. All grain had to be turned over to the government and farmers were required to meet grain quotas in exchange for rations at communal canteens.

Communist Party officials falsified reports that stated record harvests; grain was shipped from provinces with masses of starving peasants to warehouses in the cities were it either rotted or was exported abroad to earn scarce hard currency; and tens of thousands of peasant were killed for resisting government policies. [Source: Daniel Southerland, Washington Post, July 17, 1994]

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker: “While food shortages deepened, the Chinese regime continued to insist on huge grain procurements from the countryside. The aim was not only to maintain outstanding export commitments but also to protect China’s image in the world.”

According to Dikötter, Mao ordered the Party to procure more grain than ever before, declaring that “when there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.” In 1960, the worst year of the famine, which was exacerbated by drought as well as flash floods, grain was sent, often gratis, to Albania, Cuba, Vietnam, Indonesia, and Poland.

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Reasons Behind the Great Famine

"Tombstone" author Yang Jisheng told the New York Review of Books, “The government says the famine was caused by “three difficult years” (natural disasters), the Sino-Soviet split (of 1960), and by political errors. In my account I acknowledge that there were natural disasters but there always have been. China is so big that there is some kind of natural disaster every year. I went to the meteorological bureau five times, looked at material and talked to experts. I didn’t find that climate conditions in those three years were significantly different from that of other periods. It all seemed normal. This wasn’t a factor.” What about the Sino-Soviet split? It had no impact. The Soviets’ break with China was in 1960. People had been starving to death for more than a year already. They built a tractor factory and that was finished in 1959. Wouldn’t that have been a help to Chinese agriculture rather than a hindrance?” [Source: Ian Johnson New York Times Review of Books, December 20, 2010]

So what can account for starvation on such a vast scale? The key reason is political misjudgment. It is not the third reason. It is the only reason. How did such misguided policies go on for four years? In a truly democratic country, they would have been corrected in half a year or a year. Why did no one oppose them or criticize them? I view this as part of the totalitarian system that China had at the time. The chief culprit was Mao.

Dikötter also puts the blame squarely on Mao’s shoulders. He dismisses Mao’s well-known defense of farmers’ evading grain procurers in 1959 and his advocacy of “right opportunism,” as Mao taking “the pose of a benevolent sage-king protective of the welfare of his subjects”

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker: “Focusing relentlessly on Mao’s character and motivations, Dikötter confirms the man’s reputation as sadistic, cowardly, callous, and vindictive. Yet his bold portrait bleaches out much of the period’s historical and geopolitical backdrop (the uprising in Tibet in 1959, anti-American riots in Taiwan, border clashes with India, the Sino-Soviet rift), and he misses, too, the abusive relationship between Mao and the Chinese people: how sincerely and deeply, for instance, they trusted and revered their leader before being betrayed by him.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]

“Dikötter’s account of Mao’s inner life scants some crucial details that would give a richer picture of his motivations and his constant maneuvering within the Party, while also undercutting the image of him as an indefatigable megalomaniac; for instance, the fact that Mao, after resigning as head of state in 1959, was unhappy with his diminished role in day-to-day decision-making, or that he had already called for a major change of course in November, 1960, and criticized himself at the Party Conference in 1962.”

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Hardships During the Great Famine

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “When Li Yaqin was 16, she ate what her family could scavenge: dandelion leaves, alfalfa, rice sprouts, corn husks ground and pressed into cakes. As her college-age granddaughter quietly captured her on digital camera, the 73-year-old told of watching her father starve to death. "He was sleeping on the bed and couldn't move because he was too hungry," said Li, her jet-black bangs framing an expression taut with lingering despair. "He called me to pull him up, but when I tried to pull him up, he just rolled around in bed and couldn't get up. And then he stopped moving." [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, Los Angeles Times, October 14,2105 ]

Recalling the period, one Chinese botanist told Discover magazine, “Everyone was hungry. there wasn’t enough food for everyone . My biggest wish was always to have a full stomach. From morning to night, I was hungry, hungry, hungry. But so was everyone.” The botanist said his legs and belly swelled from malnutrition. Often the only thing to eat was bamboo shoots and leftover mash from making soy milk, a mixture he said was so foul it made him vomit and get diarrhea.

One witness told Yang Jisheng in "Tombstone", “I went to one village and saw 100 corpses. Then another village and another 100 corpses. No one paid attention to them. People said dogs were eating the bodies. Not true I said. The dogs had long ago been eaten by the people.”

Hardships for Farmers During the Great Famine

Much of the grain was taken to the cities generating severe shortages among farmers. People remember grain rations that never arrived and eating sweet potatoes, cabbage soup, and leaves for weeks on end. Some families stayed alive by eating wild grass and mushrooms.

"59, 58 … 59, 60.... Not a single good day in those three years. Many starved to death," Lei Xianzhen, a 70-year-old in Hubei province said. One farmer told the New York Times, "By 1959 the peasants were exhausted, and couldn't or wouldn't work more because the system took everything away. By 1960, we'd stopped planting. And the grain ran out."

In his book "Chinese History Revisited" Xiao Jiansheng described how his grandfather died in 1958 after his property was seized in the creation of the communes. “Our land, farming cows, farming tools, and even our pots, bowls andchopsticks were all confiscated,” he wrote. But there was not enough food at the public canteen and the despairing 78-year-old starved himself to death in protest...I learned that when a person's private property is infringed upon, his right to pursue happiness is taken away, there could be dire consequences,” Xiao wrote. [ Source:Tania Branigan, The Guardian]

Dazhai Commune poster

Cannibalism and the Great Famine at Its Worst

Louisa Lim reported on NPR, "Unbearable hunger made people behave in inhuman ways. Even government records reported cases where people ate human flesh from dead bodies. "Documents report several thousand cases where people ate other people," Yang says. "Parents ate their own kids. Kids ate their own parents. And we couldn't have imagined there was still grain in the warehouses. At the worst time, the government was still exporting grain."[Source: Louisa Lim, NPR, November 10, 2012]

One local government report on cannibalism read: “Date: February 1960. Location: Zhangzigou backside village in Hanji commune. Culprit’s name: Yi Wucheng. Culprit’s status: Poor peasant. Number of victims: 4. Manner of crime: Exhumed the victims’ corpses and consumed the flesh. Reason: To survive..”

People said they were so hungry their chests touched their backs. Anhui Province, about 600 miles south of Beijing, was one of the hardest hit areas. Here bodies sometimes lined the road and reports of cannibalism were common. "Everyday, I would see a corpse," one Anhui farmer told the Los Angeles Times. "Sometimes I recognized them as a neighbor. Often they were strangers."

One survivor told the Los Angeles Times, she lost her 3-year-old daughter and her sister within a few hours of each other. "As I turned to come home, I thought for sure that I would die myself on the way." She then said, "The only thing that saved us was carrots we grew on the riverbanks. We had three old people die from diseases related to starvation. But the carrots saved most of us."

According to a report made available in the West in 1998, there were 63 recorded reports of cannibalism at Fengyang County commune in Anhui.. "In Damiao commune," the report read, "Chen Zhangying and her husband Zhao Xezhen killed and boiled their 8-year-old son Xiao Qing and ate him...In Wudian commune Wang Lanyong not only pick picked up dead people to eat, but also sold two jin [2.2 pounds] from their bodies as pork."

Xinyang Incident

The worst of the Great Famine was in Xinyang in China's central Henan province, where one in eight people died from the famine. Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “One of Yang's most compelling case studies is of Xinyang, a city in Henan province, where a million people out of a population of more than eight million were victims of Maoist experimentation. Here, as in many parts of China, exaggerated reports of harvests and aggressive procurements of grain by the state led to mass starvation. By the spring of 1960, according to one of Yang's witnesses, corpses lay on the roads and in the fields, hardened by the winter cold and bent, often with holes in their buttocks and legs where flesh had been torn off. The survivors blamed dogs for the disfigurement. But the dogs had already been eaten. The truth was that many people that winter and the next survived by preying on the dead, sometimes even on their own family members.” [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012]

Yang Jisheng wrote in “Tombstone”: Xinyang Prefecture lies in the southeast of Henan, bordering the provinces of Hubei and Anhui. In 1958 the prefecture administered eighteen counties, the city of Xinyang, and the town of Zhumadian. It was home to 8.5 million people. Most of the prefecture consisted of mountain ranges that had served as bases for China's revolutionary forces, and where hundreds of thousands of lives had been sacrificed in the civil war with the Kuomintang. Elderly residents say, "Even the trees and grasses of the Dabie Mountains served the Communist Party." This lush region was the province's main producer of grain and cotton and an abundant source of tea leaves, timber, bamboo, tung oil, and medicinal herbs. Scenic Jigong Shan (Rooster Mountain) is located here. In short, Xinyang, along with nearby Nanyang and Luoyang, was the economic engine of the province. Yet from the winter of 1959 to the spring of 1960, at least one million people starved to death here—one out of every eight residents. “Li Jian, an official of the CCP Central Control Commission (the precursor of the Discipline and Inspection Commission) sent to Henan in the wake of the famine, found that the largest number of starvation deaths occurred in Xinyang and two other prefectures: Nanyang and Xuchang. The most horrific situation became known as the "Xinyang Incident." [Source:“Tombstone: The Great Chinese Famine, 1958-1962" by Yang Jisheng, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008]

Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books: "The sixty pages Yang spends on Xinyang are a tour de force, a brutal vignette of people dying at the sides of roads, family members eating one another to survive, police blocking refugees from leaving villages, and desperate pleas ignored by Mao Zedong and his spineless courtiers. It is a chapter that describes a society laid so low that the famine’s effects are still felt half a century later. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, November 22, 2012]

Violence in Mao's Great Famine

“Horrific as it was, with its cannibalism and people eating mud in search of sustenance, the famine generated by the Great Leap's failure and the diversion of labor from farming was only part of a saga of oppression, cruelty and lies on a gargantuan scale,” the historian Jonathan Fenby wrote in the Guardian. [Source: The Guardian,Jonathan Fenby, September 5, 2010]

In a review of Frank Dikotter’s book "Mao's Great Famine: The History of China's Most Devastating Catastrophe, 1958-62", Fenby wrote, “Horrors pile up as... the spread of collective farms and the vast projects that caused more harm than good “involve “the press-ganging of millions of people into forced labor. As the pressure mounted to provide the all-powerful state with more and more output, the use of extreme violence became the norm, with starvation used as a weapon to punish those who could not keep up with the work routine demanded of them. The justice system was abolished. Brutal party cadres ran amok. “It is impossible not to beat people to death,” one county leader said.”

“In the draconian, top-down, militaristic system that ruled China, the harsh execution of orders was a way for officials to win promotion as they were set impossible targets for everything even for the number of executions. The inefficiency, waste and destruction were gigantic. The masses in whose name the Communist party claimed to rule were eminently disposable. From 1927 to their victory in 1949, Mao and his companions had waged ruthless warfare (against equally ruthless if less effective nationalist opponents); now the campaign was economic and the farmers and industrial workers were the fodder expected to sacrifice themselves for the cause dictated from on high. Anybody not ready to lay down their life would have it taken from them in the name of the higher good of the cause. “

Accounts from the Great Famine

Responding to claims that the Great Famine didn’t take place, one person posted the following weibo: “My hometown is a village in Anhui Province. I heard senior villagers talk about “the year of 1958" since I was little. I’m not sure how many have died of starvation from 1958 to 1961, but in my father’s family, the only ones survived were my father, his mom and dad and his youngest sister. All his brothers were dead. Whenever my father talks about it, he’d cry. I also feel his pain. [Source: Offbeat China, May 3, 2012]

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Another one from Anhui Province read: “My father came from Linshu County, Anhui Province. Due to his family’s extreme poverty, my father was given a chance to study at a college in Shanghai. To make it possible for my father to live, my grandparents had to eat tree barks and they both starved to death...During the Great Famine, not many people directly died of starvation in my hometown. But a lot died from malnutrition. Many more households escaped at the risk of being shot. Most of these people lost trace since, among them were my grandma’s family.”

“The Great Famine experienced by my family. My hometown is Jingyan at Leshan. One of my aunts married a Mr. Xiong from the same village. They had a total of 8 members in their family, the couple, one son, two grandparents, and three siblings. They all starved to death during the Great Famine. None survived! The tragedy happened right to our parents’ generation...My father told me that 1958 was actually a once-in-a-life-time plentiful year. How big was the harvest? Ripe grains were left rotten in farmlands for months. The whole village smelled like rotten sweet potatoes. 1959 was OK, but people started to die of starvation from 1960.

Mao and the Great Famine

One Chinese physicist told the Washington Post "the famine was at least 90 percent the fault of Mao Zedong." According to one report, "1958 was an excellent year for agricultural production and 1959 was only slightly below average." Drought was severe in 1960 in some provinces but not in every province.

Even though Mao was warned that the Great Leap Forward was creating food shortages he failed to take the necessary action to rectify the situation. At one point Mao said, "When there is not enough to eat, people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill." Some high-ranking officials that tried to draw attention to fact that million were starving were branded “anti-party” elements and jailed, tortured and killed. Among these were the respected defense minister Peng Dehuai.

Mao reportedly forced food exports to continue while the famine was going on, saying “half of China may have to die” for his project to succeed. As the famine worsened Mao and the top Communist party officials were wined, dined an entertained with dance troupes in Shanghai and Mao himself had two dance parties each week at his palace ballroom instead of the normal one. Zhou Enlai kept silent on the Great Leap Forward. Finally Mao, showed some sympathy for those who suffered by not eating meat for six months.

In her book "The Great Famine in China, 1958-1962: A Documentary History", Zhou Xun “has an intriguing section on religion, with reports on the desperate turn to faith by people whose secular God — Mao — had failed them. In one, the Sichuan Province Public Security Bureau worriedly notes a saying going around a village: “The heavenly army is coming soon, and Chairman Mao will not last long.” [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, November 22, 2012]

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “Apprised of the catastrophe in Xinyang, Mao blamed "counter-revolutionaries" and "ruthless class retaliation" by Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists (his old rivals, who were by then ensconced in Taiwan). Someone had to be punished, and though Mao balked at the death sentence — "I've never killed a county Party secretary," he claimed — the officials responsible were imprisoned and persecuted. Yang denounces the outcome as "manifestly unjust": local operatives were punished while the central government, which formulated and promoted the fatal policies, remained "correct and glorious." Mao, much more than China's leaders today, was the beneficiary of a widespread faith in the wisdom and the noble intentions of the central government. In "Tombstone," Mao emerges as patriotic but megalomaniacal, crudely vindictive, and utterly inept. Yang is clear that Mao presided over a "totalitarian" system, but he avoids simpleminded Western presentations of Mao as the Oriental Hitler. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012]

Politics Behind the Great Famine

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Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “Yang is more interested in examining the defects within the political organization that produced the famine. He writes, "The great famine occurred within a system that produced incentives for local officials to exaggerate production while the state monopoly stifled incentives for increasing production." Yang quotes the criticisms of many Party members, such as Bo Yibo (the father of Bo Xilai, the recently disgraced Party secretary of the city-province of Chongqing). Mao wasn't entirely immune to self-doubt and periodically revealed himself to be a clear-sighted observer of the system's debilities. In an internal Party communique in 1959, he admitted, "Much of the falsehood has been prompted by the upper levels through boasting, pressure, and reward, leaving little alternative to those below." [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012]

Bret Stephens wrote in the Wall Street Journal, “The power of Mr. Yang's book lies in its hauntingly precise descriptions of the cruelty of party officials, the suffering of the peasants, the pervasive dread of being called "a right deviationist" for telling the truth that quotas weren't being met and that millions were being starved to death, and the toadyism of Mao lieutenants. "Mao's powers expanded from the people's minds to their stomachs," Mr. Yang says. "Whatever the Chinese people's brains were thinking and what their stomachs were receiving were all under the control of Mao. . . . His powers extended to every inch of the field, and every factory, every workroom of a factory, every family in China." [Source: Bret Stephens, Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2013 +++]

“All the while, sympathetic Western journalists—America's Edgar Snow and Britain's Felix Greene in particular—were invited on carefully orchestrated tours so they could "refute" rumors of mass starvation. To this day, few people realize that Mao's forced famine was the single greatest atrocity of the 20th century, exceeding by orders of magnitude the Rwandan genocide, the Cambodian Killing Fields and the Holocaust. +++

Going Against Mao’s Plan in the Great Famine

Inspecting the Great Leap Forward

Pankaj Mishra wrote in The New Yorker, “"Tombstone" also presents fascinating instances in which local officials ignored or reversed orders from the central government, improvising policies of their own. In early 1961, Zeng Xisheng, the Party chief of Anhui province, who had condemned thousands to premature death in his zeal for high procurement targets, boldly overturned Mao's collectivization project by contracting land to individual households. This commonsensical solution dawned on him after he heard of a seventy-three-year-old peasant who, with his tubercular son and using a single shovel, cultivated a plot of land in the mountains: after reaping an abundant harvest, the man sold his surplus grain to the state while also feeding himself. Mao encouraged Zeng to experiment with the so-called "responsibility fields." "Give it a try," he reportedly said. "If it doesn't work, carry out self-criticism. If it works well . . . that will be splendid!" [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 10, 2012]

“Zeng's experiment, which daringly contradicted Mao's fantasy of collectivism, proved to be successful, and Anhui was among the first provinces to recover from the famine, in 1962. But by then Mao had been made insecure by the open acknowledgment of the Party's policy errors by Liu Shaoqi and others. In early 1962, Liu, clearly striving for an acceptable ratio, described the famine as "three parts natural disaster and seven parts man-made disaster." Later that year, he had the temerity to inform the Chairman that "history will record the role you and I played in the starvation of so many people, and the cannibalism will also be memorialized!" Mao, recoiling from such criticism, now wanted to assert his ideological infallibility and revert to the old method — the evidently true one of Communism.

“Zeng ignored him, despite complaints from Maoists that he was engaged in "bourgeois restoration." But, by the end of 1962, ideological pressures from above had curtailed his innovation. Later, like many Party officials responsible for mass suffering during the famine, Zeng was exposed to the fury of the Cultural Revolution's victims. After brutal interrogation and public humiliation, he was put to death by young Red Guards. But there was another coda to his efforts. In 1978, Yang writes, as Deng Xiaoping ushered China into a market economy, "Anhui province took the lead in reinstating the responsibility fields, after which the practice spread throughout China."

End of the Great Famine

Inspecting the Great Leap Forward

During the Great Leap Forward, Mao was challenged by his moderate defense minister Peng Duhai. Peng, who accused Mao of having become so out of touch with the conditions in the countryside that he did not even know about problems emerging in his home county. Peng was quickly purged. In 1959 Mao defended farmers who evaded grain procurers and advocated the “right opportunism.” Historians view this period as “one of “retreat” or “cooling off” in which Mao pretended to be a “benign leader,” and “the pressure temporarily abated.” Still the famine went on and peaked in 1960.

Ian Johnson wrote in the New York Times. “Moderates in the party rallied around one of China’s most famous generals, Peng Dehuai, who tried to slow Mao’s policies and limit the famine. At a meeting in 1959 at the Lushan resort in central China, Mao outmaneuvered them — a turning point in modern Chinese history that transformed the famine into the worst in recorded history and helped create a personality cult around Mao. At a critical point during the Lushan meeting, one of Mao’s personal secretaries was accused of having said that Mao could accept no criticism. The room went silent.” Li Riu, another one of Mao’s secretaries, “was asked if he had heard the man make such a bold criticism. In an oral history of the period, Mr. Li recalled: “I stood up and answered: ‘[He] heard wrong. Those were my views.’ ” Mr. Li was quickly purged. He was identified, along with General Peng, as an anti-Mao co-conspirator. He was stripped of his party membership and sent to a penal colony near the Soviet border. “With China besieged by famine, Mr. Li almost starved to death. He was saved when friends managed to get him transferred to another labor camp that had access to food.

Finally, somebody had to confront Mao. As China descended into catastrophe, Liu Shaoqi, Mao’ No. 2 man and head of state, who had been shocked at the conditions he found when he visited his home village, forced the chairman to retreat. An effort at national reconstruction began. But Mao was not finished. Four years later, he launched the Cultural Revolution whose most prominent victim was Liu, hounded by Red Guards until he died in 1969, deprived of medicines and cremated under a false name. [Source: The Guardian, Jonathan Fenby, September 5, 2010]

The “turning point” was the Party meeting in early 1962, Liu Shaoqi admitted that a “man-made disaster” had occurred in China. Dikötter described how Mao feared that Liu Shaoqi would discredit him just as completely as Khrushchev had damaged Stalin’s reputation. In his view this was the impetus behind the Cultural Revolution that started in 1966. “Mao was biding his time, but the patient groundwork for launching a Cultural Revolution that would tear the party and the country apart had already begun,” Dikötter wrote. [Source: Pankaj Mishra, The New Yorker, December 20, 2010]

“This narrative line is plausible: exhorting young Chinese to assault the allegedly expanding bourgeoisie within the Party,” Misha wrote, “Mao hoped to preserve his power and revolutionary legacy from bureaucratic “revisionists” like Liu Shaoqi, who was among the leaders who died at the hands of the Red Guard. “

In 1961 the Communist Government began importing wheat, mostly from Australia and Canada. The grain was shipped on army trucks to the countryside and given to peasants. But much arrived to late "to help the sick and starving, some too weak to stagger to the trucks."

Afterwards Mao told a Hong Kong newspaper."How could we kill 20 million?" and said "even if there's a collapse, that'll be alright. The worst that could happen is that the whole world will get a big laugh out of it."

Later Mao acknowledged the "informational role of democracy" and warned Communists that "without democracy, you have no understanding of what is happening down below."

The famine did not officially occur, Chinese history textbooks mention “three years of natural disasters” between 1959 and 1961 but do not mention the artificial famine created by Mao.

The story of the great famine around 1960 was first brought to the attention of the outside world by Jasper Becker'sgroundbreaking 1996 account, Hungry Ghosts. Its claims were doubted by those who could not accept the sheer monstrous scale of the calamity visited on the Chinese people as a result of the Great Leap Forward. But now research in newly opened local archives makes all too credible his estimate that the death toll reached 45 million people. Though some mainland historians have bravely delved into the history of the period covered in this book, the truth is still too troubling to be acknowledged openly by the current rulers of China for one simple reason: Mao is the first emperor of the regime established in 1949 and they are his heirs. [Source: The Guardian, Jonathan Fenby, September 5, 2010]

Blame for the Great Famine

Ian Johnson wrote in the NY Review of Books: Yang, the author of "Tombstone," "lays the blame firmly on the top leaders — not just Mao but also supposed moderates like Liu and Zhou. In imperial China, Yang says, power was centered in the Confucian bureaucracy but the truth lay in religion and philosophical texts, such as the Confucian classics. In Maoist China, by contrast, the leader was the sage, meaning there was no ideological alternative to Mao. “China’s government became a secular theocracy that united the center of power with the center of truth” is Yang’s pithy but telling analysis. [Source: Ian Johnson, NY Review of Books, November 22, 2012]

Yang doesn’t spare Mao, Liu, or Zhou, but he also blames Chinese society for wanting to believe that leaders had a quick and easy solution to China’s backwardness. Mostly, he blames the Communist political system for allowing such a leader as Mao to take power — a far more damning indictment of today’s China than simply blaming Mao: “The problem lay in arbitrary and dictatorial decision making at the expense of good practice, and coercive implementation that deprived people of their rights and property. Both flaws were rooted in the political system.”

The 2010 book, "Mao’s Great Famine" by Dikötter “differs from Yang’s book by putting most of the blame on Mao; on the first page we’re told he is comparable to Hitler, Stalin, or Pol Pot. For Dikötter, it is essential that the reader accept Mao’s full culpability, much in the same way that Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s biography of Mao aims to put him in the pantheon of twentieth-century monsters.

Image Sources: Posters, Landsberger Posters; Photographs, Everyday Life in Maoist Ohio State University and Wikicommons, YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated August 2021

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